In 2012 a team of paleontologists, including University of Calgary professor Dr. Darla Zelenitsky, discovered the first fossil evidence of feathered dinosaurs in North America. The discovery was also notable for being the first evidence that Ornithomimus edmonticus — a lithe therapod dinosaur that resembled modern ostriches — had both feathers and primitive wing-like structures called pennibrachia.
These dinosaurs, which have traditionally been portrayed as being featherless, are now being restored with their proper plumage intact. With Zelenitsky’s help, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology digital media student Kristin Jacobs has brought the enigmatic Ornithomimus to life with 3D animation for an upcoming documentary.
“I was invited to take part on this project by the head of our program at NAIT, and I accepted because it sounded really amazing,” Jacobs said. “I had really wanted to work on the film aspect of 3D animation, so to reconstruct dinosaurs to be used in a documentary was a great opportunity.”
Jacobs’s film clips portray both a juvenile and an adult Ornithomimus, with the purpose of showing how these animals looked, moved and behaved. In order to ensure that they would be as accurate as possible, Zelenitsky helped Jacobs with the lengthy process of modeling and animating the dinosaur family.
“She was working a lot on this, over 70 hours a week for about four months,” Zelenitsky said. “I helped her work on the anatomy, movement and feathering, and we ended up producing several different animations of the dinosaurs.”
Since a 3D animation of a feathered Ornithomimus had not been attempted before, much of Jacobs’s work needed to be done without the help of previously existing reference material. Compounding this was the lack of technical information on the animal’s anatomy, since it has not been studied as thoroughly as some other types of dinosaur.
“Doing the feathers was definitely challenging, since there are not a lot of resources out there for feathered dinosaurs,” Jacobs said. “The bones were also difficult, since the Ornithomimus unfortunately isn’t a very popular dinosaur. This is where Zelenitsky really helped, since she had actually seen the bones and handled them in person.”
Despite these challenges, Jacobs is still glad that she took on the project. Accurate representations of dinosaurs in popular culture are important in dispelling outdated notions of their appearance and behaviour, and Jacobs’s work will help to advance the general public’s understanding of these extinct animals.
“I threw my life into these dinosaurs,” Jacobs said, “and I’m happy with how they turned out.”